Request for Documentation!
By Phyllis Dickinson

Inkle Looms
In TAPE LOOMS Past & Present, Bonnie Weidert shows lots of different tape looms from the 18th century and earlier. She also mentions that “inkle” was another word for woven tape, and thus “inkle loom” meant a tape loom in the 18th century. I have never seen any documentation or 18th century inkle looms of the modern type, but I haven’t seen everything! If anyone has documentation of the use of the inkle loom in the 18th century, could we please share? The loom I am referring to is the 6" or so dowel rod and frame loom that makes a narrow woven strip. Please, if you have any knowledge or documentation that would help, let’s share!1

Drop Spindles in the North American Colonies in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Drop Spindles are the oldest spinning technology, and the most widespread. Many countries in the world still use this technology for spinning thread today. We use drop spindles to teach beginners, and to show the basic principles of spinning (drafting and twisting fibers). In 27 years of spinning, however, I have yet to find any documentation that drop spindles were used at all in the North American colonies in the 17th and 18th centuries. If anyone has any information about or documentation for the use of drop spindles in this country in this time period, we are begging you to share!

This is a good case of the fallacy of “if they had them, they would have used them” and “it is common technology elsewhere, so it must have been used here.” The following are reasons why these arguments don’t hold up for drop spindles.

1. When spinning wheels arrived, drop spindles were pushed aside and in many cases abandoned in Europe. The early European wheels were the “great wheels:” the hand turned “walking” wheels. They arrived in Europe about 1000 AD from China and India by way of the Middle East. A lot of things arrived in Europe from the Middle East about then, due to the Crusades. Walking wheels were very widely used in Europe before treadle wheels with flyers were developed in the 1400’s. A walking wheel is just a spindle supported and belt driven.

In Europe, and every chair and bench sitting part of the world, spinners took the Middle Eastern walking wheels which were usually used with the spinner sitting on the floor and put legs on the platform. Very quickly European great wheels were raised so the spinner either sat or stood. There are lots of pictures of these wheels in use. It is very common for the great wheels to look like bobbin winders for weaving, but in the earlier pictures, they are usually spinning wheels.
In those European countries where spinning wheels were common, drop spindles become very scarce. In the more remote and “third world” countries (like Greece, Albania, Turkey, etc.) drop spindles continue to be used to this day. Since both great wheels and treadle wheels were commonly used in Western Europe by 1607, it is doubtful that drop spindles were brought to the colonies. We have found no evidence of drop spindles in the North American colonies in the 17th and 18th centuries. We have a great deal of evidence of both walking and treadle wheels, however.

2. In places where drop spindles never fell out of use and in many archaeological sites, you can see that drop spindles were very often decorated. Lots of spindles seem to be excessively decorated, typical of courting gifts, which leads to the conclusion that the plain drop spindles got used and the courting gifts were passed down. Like other courting gifts, drop spindles in many cultures are a way for the gentleman in question to do two things: show his skill in carving, painting, etc., and show his interest in her ability to do the necessary “woman’s work.” Many things fit into this category, including spinning wheels, furniture, spoons, busks and stomachers (the wooden things ladies stuck down the front of their gowns to keep their posture straight and keep their stays covered.)

Like the clothing of poor people, tools that saw hard use did not get passed along as they were worn out and replaced. Since we have not found the decorated spindles that would indicate that this tool was still valued in the North American colonies in the 17th and 18th centuries, the anthropological view of culture would surmise that the drop spindle was not used in the American colonies. If drop spindles were no longer used, what was the technology? Documentation and surviving artifacts suggest that the great wheel was the lowest level of spinning technology in the North American colonies in the 17th and 18th centuries. The great wheel, unlike a treadle wheel with a flyer, requires very little in the way of woodworking skill, and would therefore be fairly simple for the average family to construct for themselves.

3. If the argument that drop spindles were cheaper and easier to come by and therefore more commonly used held merit, then you would expect to see drop spindles in areas where technology was slow in coming. This would include the western frontier and poorer and less accessible areas, including areas like the mountains of North Carolina (where some of the poorest early colonists ended up), or the Kentucky-Tennessee area. But we have found NO reference to the use of drop spindles or any existing artifacts in these areas either. What we have found is LOTS of fairly primitive great wheels. This leads to the evidence-based conclusion that the low-tech version of spinning for these people was a great wheel, not a drop spindle.

4. The thing that continues to bother me about the whole drop spindle question is why no one has drop spindles from the North American colonies in the 17th and 18th centuries in their attic when they have all the other textile tools from granny, etc. When I was starting out we spent a week with an 80 year old woman in Tennessee who we found out about through the United Methodist’s Red Bird Mission (this was 1973). She spent a week teaching us all she knew about
spinning. This woman, who had her great-great-great grand mother’s tools did not even know what a drop spindle was. We all brought our drop spindles, since that is what we were practicing on. She thought they were parts for great wheels. If a woman so steeped in the folk tradition of her area, who spun and wove and dyed just like her ancestors, did not know what a drop spindle was, and said no one she ever knew of used one, it does lend a certain credence to the idea that this tool was not present in the colonies.

All of these conclusions would have to be re-worked if we had documentation of American drop spindles from the North American colonies in the 17th and 18th
centuries. The rules and history of other countries does not apply here. Neither does the attempt to explain the past through 20th century customs and thought processes. After 27 years of diaries, estate inventories, museums, and books, we should have found some drop spindles by now. We haven’t. Not one.
SO: if you know about any documentation or existing drop spindles used by the North American colonists (not the Native Americans, and not the Spanish colonists!) in the 17th and 18th centuries, please share! Maybe we can either get more comfortable with these conclusions or prove the existence of drop spindles in the North American colonies.

Your humble and researching servant,
Phyllis Dickinson

1) Weidert, Bonnie R., Tape Looms Past and Present,
c 1999 by the author, 30 Hanson Circle, Henrietta, NY 14467.

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